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Iran Is Planning to Stone This Woman to Death. Can Anyone Save Her?

LONDON—Glimmers of hope, rumored concessions, and anticipated de-escalations of rhetoric are the almost daily fare of those of us who cover Iran and its tense relations with the West. But in the year since Iran's disputed election—and the brutal crackdown that has followed—those brief shining moments have almost always faded away. This has happened yet again in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery.

Her story captured attention earlier this summer when her son, risking his own safety, rallied the international media and human rights groups to highlight her case and, he hoped, save her life. One month ago, he seemed to have succeeded, when her sentence was apparently commuted in a statement issued by Tehran's London embassy, which said, ‘“According to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, she will not be executed by stoning.” Her lawyer, Mohammed Mostafaei, was always skeptical. He told me by phone from Tehran that night that, “The statement is not from the judiciary and is ambiguous. I’m worried she could still be stoned at any minute, or executed in another way.” But many observers saw relief in sight.

Last week, hopes ratcheted up further, when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva offered to give Sakineh asylum. "I want to make an appeal to my friend Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader of Iran and to the government of Iran,” da Silva said, “to allow Brazil to take in the woman.”

It was a daring and potentially powerful play: Lula seeking to avert an impending tragedy that has captivated the world by using his newfound influence, built on his recent success negotiating an alternate nuclear transfer deal to replace the one that collapsed with the U.S. and Europe. "I have to respect a country’s laws, but if my friendship and regard I have for the president of Iran and the Iranian people is worth something, if this woman is causing discomfort, we could take her in Brazil," he continued.

Some news outlets breathlessly reported that her release was possible 'as soon as this week.' The U.S. State Department appeared hopeful, encouraging Iran to accept Brazil’s offer. "If Brazil is willing to accept ... this woman, we would hope that Iran would consider that as a humanitarian gesture," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. But the next day, a foreign ministry spokesman rejected the offer, saying, "As far as we know, da Silva is a very humane and emotional person who probably has not received enough information about the case.” The conservative Jahan News went further, calling Lula's offer “interference in Iran's domestic affairs.”

Those who cover China are familiar with such phraseology. Beijing has long used the same retort to any foreign objections to human rights abuses inside its borders. More disturbingly, Jahan also reported that Sakineh could still be executed, most likely by hanging. Her lawyer may have been right all along.

Throughout the drama, Mostafaei saw few glimmers of hope himself, only intensified threats from the regime. Two weeks ago, plainclothes police came to his office to arrest him. When they couldn’t find him, Iranian police instead detained his wife, Fereshteh Halimi, as well as her brother and father-in-law. Mostafaei himself went into in hiding, first breaking his silence in e-mails sent to supporters. In a letter addressed to Tehran’s prosecutor, Jafari Dolatabadi, he said his family was being held as hostages. He refused to turn himself in, saying he had no hope of a fair trial.

“I was so anxious that I intended to go to (Tehran’s) Evin prison and give myself up but I could not tolerate so much lawlessness and the abuse of the basic human rights of a person,” he wrote. “Despite the most precious beings of my life being imprisoned, I decided not to appear before an interrogator who does not abide by the very basics of the law including the fact that only the person committing the crime is responsible for his actions and not his family members.” Addressing Dolatabadi directly, he said, “I find it unlikely that a Muslim can remove a child from her mother like this.”

Last Wednesday, Mostafaei fled to Turkey, and he has since been offered asylum by a number of countries, including Norway and Canada. His brother and father-in-law have been released from detention. His wife Fereshteh, however, remains in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison—their seven-year-old daughter now taken care of by relatives. Speaking to me by telephone from Turkey, Mostafaei could barely contain his emotion.

“Unfortunately the judiciary has destroyed this family,” he said. “To tell the truth whenever I hear the name of my daughter or hear her voice, I can’t even speak anymore.” As for his client, Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, Mostafaei finds it impossible to predict her fate. “The new people in judiciary are totally unpredictable,” he said. “They just want to show how powerful they are and that’s the basis of their decisions. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The Iranian dissident blogger Potkin Azarmehr, who is based in London, agrees, “They want to show they’re powerful on this, that they don’t yield, they don’t back down to pressure. They believe a concession would show that international pressure works.” In Ashtiani’s case or, more pointedly, many believe, regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Throughout the last several weeks, Mostafaei has stood by his efforts to defend Sakineh and other death row inmates, among them 18 juveniles. But today, while he and his wife pay with their freedom, Ashtiani’s life appears no closer to being spared. As the world watches and waits, many contacts inside Iran tell me we can comfortably lower our expectations of a hopeful end to this story.

UPDATE: Mostafei's wife has reportedly been released from prison on bail. The charge was aiding and abetting a fugitive.